The Struggle to Survive in the Most Violent Country in the World

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El Universal’s Pablo Ferri provides a series of snapshots illustrating one of the main factors behind crime and violence in Honduras: the ability of drug traffickers to influence law enforcement and judicial officials with ease.

Hilda Caldera felt a sharp blow to her back, immediately followed by an intense burning. She did not know what was happening, and had no time to figure it out before several more shots were fired. Alfredo Landaverde, her husband, was driving that day. His car was in the shop for a couple of weeks after taking a knock, so they were using hers. They both had to go to Tegucigalpa that morning: him to collect his salary as a consultant for the Honduran Congress and she, a sociologist, in order to work out the details of a new consultancy project.

It was not yet 10 a.m. when the blue Kia stopped at a traffic light on Avenida Los Heroes. They were entering the nice part of the city, the streets lined by foreign embassies (both the United States and Mexico have theirs about two kilometers away), the United Nations building and a luxury hotel. Just as the light changed and they took off, one of the men on a motorcycle opened fire. She felt the burning in her back and immediately turned around. Her husband was lying wounded in the driver’s seat, and lost control of the wheel. Meanwhile, the motorcycle sped away.

Landaverde would not recover. The gunman had hit him three times and he died almost instantly. It was December 2011. Hilda had lost her partner of 50 years, and Honduras lost one of its most relentless champions against drug trafficking and organized crime.

A year later, the Police of the most violent country in the world — where there are 82.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the UN — is still behind on the case. In August a 21-year-old was arrested and accused of being one of the two men on the motorcycle, but nothing more. Officially, the National Direcotrate of Criminal Investigation have no clues as to who could have ordered the murder. Its head, Juan Carlos Bonilla, told reporters in September what all of Honduras had been whispering for months: that he had evidence that agents of the police force were behind the attack. Since then, there has been total silence. The only thing known for certain is that the incident involved two assassins on a motorcycle, one of whom fired seven shots with a nine millimeter handgun on the driver’s side, and then left the scene.

Hilda Caldera knew the danger that Landaverde’s complaints put him in. Days before he was silenced he had said on national television that 14 Honduran businessmen laundered drug money with government complicity. “Are you going to tell me the Attorney General does not know?” He complained, “Are you going to tell me the chief of police does not know? Are you going to tell me that the head of the armed forces does not know?”

On screen, Landaverde appeared angry and fed up. This was someone whose wife described him as “a helpful man, of ideals and dreams.” When lit up his face hid a deep weariness. “Let us go to the river of truth,” he exclaimed. The expert then raised a finger up high and issued a complete challenge: “Are you going to say that they don’t know about the existence of the ‘Group of 14,’ which works with this government just as it did with the last?”

Landaverde issued those questions to the populace of a country that receives 79 percent of the drug flights which leave from South America, according to the US State Department. Last year alone, the Army discovered the existence of 62 clandestine airstrips in the Atlantic regions and provinces along the Honduran border with Nicaragua. The Police Special Investigation Services admit the existence of “four or five” major criminal groups operating across the country, in cooperation with Mexican and Colombian cartels.

Landaverde made the claim despite the murder of General Aristides Gonzalez in December 2009. The Director of the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Narcotics Agency, Honduras’ drug czar, had said to the press that he had information on drug trafficking airstrips in the area known as the Mosquito Coast, and on the owners of them. The general also said that Mexican gangs the Sinaloa Cartel, La Familia and the Zetas were increasing their influence in the country. Days after this statement, assassins on a motorcycle gunned him down while he was driving his car. After his death, Alfredo Landaverde became one of the leading candidates to fill the position.

Hilda Caldera has no idea who ordered the murder of her husband. Aristides Gonzalez’s widow also does not know who killed hers. In keeping with what Bonilla said, former senior police officials claim that the motorcycles used in both cases case were seen after the shootings going towards the direction of Casamata, the headquarters of police in Tegucigalpa.

The weekend before he was killed, Landaverde met in the capital with the police chief and the director of prisons. His experience and media presence forced the authorities to have him present continuously.

When he came home after a four-hour meeting, he went looking for his wife to tell her something. “He said he had discussed criminal cartels within the police, which was a minefield,” she says. Days later, in the ambulance on way to the hospital, she would remember that. Her husband lay unconscious on the stretcher and she felt very angry. He would not get up.

The Boss’s Gift

The National Police director phoned his deputy in the province of El Paraiso to ask her for her part of the money. She, Maria Luisa Borjas, knew what he meant. In El Paraiso and other provinces in northwestern Honduras drug traffickers move large amounts of money and weapons. The drug bosses need “blind” police officers along these routes and that costs money, which is what the director was asking for; his piece of the pie. “I knew what Alvaro Flores Ponce meant, but I wanted to hear it in his own voice,” says Borjas. She gives the name of the former official without hesitation, saying she is sick of the situation. Despite her complaints, Flores Ponce has no charges against him thus far. He is retired from the police and is now president of the Honduran Association of Private Security and Investigation Companies.

“It’s just that you only ask, and never deliver anything,” began the director.

“Excuse me?” she replied.

“Yeah, why is it you never give me anything?”

“Let’s see, please explain because I don’t understand: what is it I have to give you? Where and how do I have to take it from? Because look at my salary, it’s so small that if I have to pass something on to you I won’t have anything left.”

The conversation ended there. The next day, Maria Luisa Borjas was dismissed from her position as the head of National Police in El Paraiso, and told to return to Tegucigalpa, the capital. Her new job would be to lead the non-existent Police Division of International Relations. It had no budget, no furniture, no staff, nor a phone. Borjas told me later that she kept all the documents concerning the division in the trunk of her car. Years later, under another director,  she became head of the Office of Internal Affairs. Both experiences showed her the immense capacity of organized crime to infiltrate and influence the police, prosecutors, the Supreme Court and Congress.

Borjas adds that even now officials offer kickbacks to their bosses if they are sent to one province or another. “There are very profitable provinces to work in,” she says ironically. “El Paraiso is profitable because it shares a border with Nicaragua; Choluteca also. In general all northern provinces are profitable.”

In Honduras, the border regions and the Atlantic coast form a vast corridor for drugs, guns and money. Commissioner Silvio Inestroza, third in command of the Special Investigation Services and a National Police spokesman, nods slowly. He is a strong man, filling his uniform well. He wears a ring on each hand and a watch on his left wrist. “The police presence is established, but it may not be available all the time,” he says from the desk of his office in Tegucigalpa.

The Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars estimated in a 2011 report titled “Organized Crime in Central America: The Northern Triangle,” that between 350 and 550 tons of cocaine pass through Honduras every year. James Bosworth, author of the section on Honduras, estimated however that this figure could be as high as 850 tons. The majority enters through provinces which border Nicaragua, like Olancho, and crosses the Atlantic coast into Guatemala. Along the border with Nicaragua is a popular landing spot for planes loaded with cocaine from Venezuela.

Olancho is perhaps the main province. Inestroza mentions it repeatedly during the conversation. Ranches where they land drug planes? Olancho. The place where cartels are based? In Olancho. The region where most arms are seized? Olancho; it is a huge, densely forested province. Only one road crosses it and it has barely three or four medium-sized towns. “Imagine”, says Inestroza, “Olancho alone is bigger than all of El Salvador and we are but a thousand officers in the entire country. That includes drivers, secretaries and everything.”

Either because of a lack of resources or ineffectiveness, drug traffickers barely suffer any losses in Honduras. Inestroza himself acknowledges that seizures are insignificant: “The other day we grabbed eight or ten kilos in El Amatillo, on the border with El Salvador and another day we took a kilo off a lady who came from Nicaragua.” You have to look back five years ago to find a seizure of 100 kilos that they carried out alone. “When it happened I was glad. One rejoices at those things!” He exclaims.

Dr. Juan Almendares, former rector of the National University and onetime presidential candidate, sarcastically summarizes everything that Inestroza tries to get across: “If in Puerto Cortes (on the Atlantic Ocean) everything that came in had to be declared, the Government would have no debts.”

The Police That Don’t Protect

We arrived in mid-afternoon to Tamara jail, 20 kilometers north of Tegucigalpa. In the entrance, a group of inmates carried grocery bags inside. Two agents of the National Police looked on, half bored. We went in and waited. Three visitors — two girls and a boy — were awaiting permission to leave the place. The youth had his head covered with a hood and barely lifted his eyes from the ground. The girls seemed nervous. He was a skinny guy who looked like a scarecrow. When the group left the prison, one of the guards murmured: “He just got it good.”

Then he explained that the boy had just left the section housing members of Barrio 18, one of the two largest gangs in Central America. The gang’s leaders had summoned him the prison to give him a beating. The guard said he “probably did something wrong,” and that when they make mistakes they have to go to prison and await their due punishment from their bosses. His explanation speaks to the reality of gangs in the country. An anti-gang law adopted by the Government in 2003 sent many leaders to prison, and the streets are now controlled from there.

Tamara Jail is not a normal prison. In fact, neither is any Honduran prison. Inmates are crammed into each of the 24 prisons in the country, and the number of guards is always insufficient to control the situation.

I understood that as I entered the Casablanca ward of the prison. They opened the door from the inside, not from outside. Then I saw that the inmates kept the keys and the guards entered because I was, although they normally stayed out. Prisoners ran the dining hall, got marijuana and took care of their pets (which even included a baby deer with white spots on its back and a red bow around the neck). They had an arena for cockfighting and it was assured to me that they invited the guards whenever they held one. There was also, of course, an area for caging the roosters, not far from the pool table.

They also told me that, from time to time, the situation got out of control. The boy in the hood was lucky in only getting a few hits. Others, like a gangster known as Cabeza, were not so fortunate. Cabeza was murdered in October 2011. He was released at night, something that rarely happens, and had not walked 500 meters away from the entrance when he was gunned down. Later the press reported that Cabeza, known as one of the leaders of the Barrio 18 in Tamara, was actually an informant. In a report published last January, the Miami Herald explained that he left prison every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:00 o’clock to carry out a boss’ orders: delivering drugs or weapons and returning with money. The newspaper indicated that the boss was a senior police officer in the prison system and supported this with a picture of Cabeza wearing a National Police uniform, the same worn by prison guards. A former senior police officer said that police officers were behind his murder, but no suspects were arrested.

The prisons are just another link in the chain of corruption in Honduras. This breakdown in order affects all sectors of society, and thus jails become another platform for crime. Police play a key role in this phenomenon. “Until a year ago they said ‘these kids are in gangs, they deal drugs’ and people said that the murders were due to fights between gangs. I believe that it is now clear that in many cases they (the police themselves) are responsible,” says Julieta Castellanos, dean of the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

Castellanos has suffered directly from police corruption. Barely a week after the death of Cabeza, four police killed her son in October 2011. Castellanos tells the story, providing details she has given hundreds of times. She shows no pain, but rather resignation. She hopes there will be justice, but with each passing month little progress is made in the case.

The government had renewed the top leadership of the Secretariat of Security one month before the October murder, and the investigation into the death of the dean’s son pointed back to the police force. “The chief of police came to my office and acknowledged that it had involved his agents,” says Castellanos. They were arrested and jailed, but escaped. “On Friday, after arresting them, they let them go on the condition that they present themselves on Monday, but they did not.”

This past October one of the alleged murderers was captured, but two fugitives remain.

After the attack, the government launched another operation to clean up the police, which so far has fired some 500 officers and dozens of middle and upper-officials including the former director, Ricardo Ramirez. It even broke up a gang of policemen operating in one of the stations of Tegucigalpa, known as the Cartel de la Granja, which specialized in robberies, extortions and killings.

Dr. Almendares, former rector of the National University and a former candidate for president in Honduras believes that “there is a deep impunity and under that hide many things. I do not think the state is unaware of what happens, that it has no information, but all the blame is pushed onto the drug trade.” Almendares recalls that several years ago, the perception of the state was similar, except that the culprits then were gang members. The government of Ricardo Maduro chalked up any crime during his administration (2002 – 2006) to gang violence. Maduro and his security minister, Oscar Alvarez, lobbied for the passage of a 2003 anti-gang law which made having a tattoo enough to arrest someone for gang links. “The system blames youth,” says Almendares, “social cleansing has been around for years.” As it was for gang members, drug trafficking is now the official beginning and end of all problems in Honduras. If a shooting occurs, it is a drug-related dispute. If police seize weapons, they were going towards the arsenal of organized crime. Almendares, who has attended to victims of torture in Honduran prisons for years, believes drug trafficking explains some crime, but not all of it. The question for him is who the traffickers are.

“Who are they?” I ask.

“There are no answers. Here planes show up and their pilots go missing. So if one says, ‘alright, but who are the narcos here?’ they find that they are linked to the main power structure, they are one and the same! What happened is no one identifies them. We suffer from repressive violence, they eliminate people and blame it on drug traffickers. They talk about drugs but don’t say who the capos are. It’s impossible for them not to know.”

 *Translated and reprinted with permission from El Universal’s Pablo Ferri, read the Spanish original here.

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